Sun. Apr 14th, 2024

By Mia Soumbasakis, a junior at OCSA

It seems as if the tectonic plates of Santa Ana’s foundation are being shifted. Not only is the induction of a new mayor just around the corner, ending Mayor Pulido’s 26 years of consecutive terms, but the physical fabric of the city is at risk of undergoing further gentrification and major development, without real consideration as to how this will affect the people who live there, especially those in the most disenfranchised parts of the city. The beauty and vitality of Santa Ana’s people and its huddled streets lined with Latine-owned restaurants, shops and bookstores, colorful houses, and taco trucks are filled with a sense of innate authenticity and heart that is being threatened by non-Santa Ana residents and businesses who are attempting to use the city’s land for their own profit rather than to benefit it.

On October 20th, the Santa Ana City Council convened at the Civic Center in masks, their meeting broadcasted over live streams and on a zoom call, with public commenters un-muting or dialing in to speak. The meeting began with recognition of heroes in the community such as two men who risked their lives to save people from a burning car in a car crash race and the editors of a local community college newspaper, El Don, which continued to serve the community during times of COVID-19.

However, the meeting soon adopted a more sour tone when Council Member Sarmiento brought up the issue of lead poisoning in children in the city under 6 years old, a real danger especially for those “in low income families and those living in pre-1978 housing.” 400 children in Orange County between the ages of 0 and 5 were reported to have lead poisoning in 2018, possibly resulting in learning disabilities or permanent brain damage.

Specifically, in Santa Ana, where many of the houses were built using lead-contaminated paint, the issue of lead poisoning is a real threat, leading Sarmiento to suggest that it is worth a trip to a doctor to do blood work. It is important that the Council not only recognizes issues such as these, but also takes action as they revise their General Plan, a long-range document which outlines the physical development of the city, such as the parameters for where businesses would be permitted to build. This General Plan is in the process of being updated for the first time since 1982 (before lead was even recognized as an issue).

General Plan Updates—Poison in Residents’ Water, Air, and Ground

Later in the meeting, when the Council discussed the updates to the General Plan (set to be adopted November 7th), Minh Thai, the Executive Director of Planning and Building, presented a slideshow about the efforts of his staff to gather input from city residents about the plan’s update in order to for it to uphold “health, equality, sustainability, culture, [and] education” in the city.

Pointing out that Mr. Thai’s staff gathered resident input using on-line surveys and zoom calls, Council Member Penaloza brought up that it is the “same 15 people that show up at [those] meetings” because many residents residents lack WiFi or effective devices, and that in order for the Council to truly understand the needs of the people, they should be touring the 17 “environmental justice disadvantaged” areas. These areas are the most disenfranchised and most directly affected by the destructive land uses of industrial buildings which border neighborhoods such as those in Madison Park. Penaloza cited that there are “many factories [in Madison Park] that butt up against these low income apartment complexes and… single family homes” creating “noise and pollutants” and “affecting the health and quality of life of [the] residents.” He continued to create a visceral image of Logan Neighborhood, describing his tour as a “very eye-opening” experience and saying there was a junkyard in the middle of the area and that he “could literally see bodies being cremated from some of these people’s driveways” for the crematorium. This is not only a violation of their property, but a cause of pollution.

Penaloza’s conclusion regarding these two communities was that the new General Plan should “[phase] that… burden out of these neighborhoods,” a lofty and not entirely reassruing statement given the direness of some of these residents’ living conditions. I can only hope that Penaloza plans to put concrete restrictions on the industrial sections of the city, especially with the health concerns that are being caused by them.

As Council Member Sarmiento discussed later, “there are contaminants in [Santa Ana] groundwater” and that while he was working with the Orange County Water District, they “had ongoing litigation against many of the businesses that… have been dumping toxins into the ground.” This litigation has been going on for the last 10 years.

Upon further research, I discovered that the Orange County Water District, which provides drinking water for Santa Ana, has had an issue with PFAS in their water since August of 2019. PFAS are a group of chemicals known to cause cancer, low infant birth weights, thyroid hormone disruption, and liver and kidney damage. These chemicals were commonly used in the 1940s to coat shoes, furniture, carpets, and other manufactured goods. Much of the water the OC Water District uses comes from the Santa Ana River, which has been tested and come back positive with PFAS.

The OC Water District has shut down 9 wells across Orange County so far, but has not yet shut down its wells in Santa Ana. Additionally, the toxic lead which was mentioned by Sarmiento at the beginning of the meeting is not only in the paint of pre-1978 housing, but also exists in the soil, as found by a recent UCI study.

The board is clearly aware of these issues, but when I emailed the Council Members and Mayor about the tangible actions they would take to restrict the chemical damage being inflicted upon their residents, the only person to respond was Penaloza, with the statement, “We do not have lead or toxins in our water. Our water is actually award winning.” He provided the 2019 Santa Ana Water Report, which not only fails to mention the PFAS in Santa Ana water, but fails to elaborate in its notes section about its testing for lead and copper. It mentions that 135 residencies were tested for lead and copper in tap water (potable water) in 2019, and that lead was detected in 3 of the samples and copper was detected in 100 of them, “none of which exceeded the [regulatory action level]” which outlines the parameters of a water system. The report did not mention the amounts of these metals that were in the water, but according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the maximum amount of lead in drinking water should be zero. This is due to the toxicity of lead, which can bioaccumulate in people’s bodies even in small doses.

The fact that Penaloza sidestepped the issue when I emailed him, when even the official Santa Ana website has a page on the PFAS that have been harming city residents, is highly concerning. Upon recommendation from Sarmiento, the approval of the new General Plan was postponed on October 20th and has been postponed to 2021 as of the November 9th Council Meeting.

Recently, Council Member Sarmiento responded to my email with a more reassuring statement:

“I believe that we must work with federal and state environmental agencies to investigate the source, level and location of potential lead contamination but also the presence of any other contaminant. Once the source is found, we must demand that the responsible parties for creating the dangerous condition remediate and cure the problem.”

Upon Sarmiento’s recommendation, the approval of the new General Plan was postponed on October 20th and has been postponed to 2021 as of the November 9th Council Meeting.

This is a productive next step as the current General Plan that is being revised does not fully address environmental issues. The postponement also indicates that there is much work ahead. During the revision process, it must include measures to ensure the safety of the land and water of its most disenfranchised residents, especially since, as Sarmiento mentioned, it is going to “govern the next generation” of Santa Ana residents. This should come with serious separation of residential areas from harmful industrial complexes and significant restrictions being put on these factories – actions that this Council will not likely take. Case in point, Council Member Phil Bacerra mentioned that his wish for Santa Ana is that it can “really truly say that [it is] a business friendly city” which caters to the needs of “folks hoping to develop [there].” A Council like this, which does not have the best interests of the people of the city in mind, needs to be reshaped.

Mike Harrah’s Plan to Further Gentrify Downtown Santa Ana

Another issue which was tabled for a later date in the October 20th City Council meeting was the status of the latest of Mike Harrah’s many building plans to make Santa Ana’s most organic centers into touristy areas for the benefit of his company, Caribou Industries. Mike Harrah is notorious for trying to build large hotels in DTSA, and this plan would involve the creation of a 75-room, 16-story hotel building, 10-story residential building, and commercial space in the heart of DTSA on the corner of 3rd street and Broadway. This would ruin the culture of downtown, especially the historic nature of the area, as pointed out by many residents during public

One such resident, Helena, spoke and said that they were “infuriated” about the plan, which they know is simply “land use for profit” of large businesses, leaving the people who live in DTSA “more tense and more vulnerable.”

Another resident, Diane Fradkin, who has lived in the city for 28 years, argued that due to the height and architecture of the proposed building (the 16-story hotel) “[doesn’t] seem to provide the historic nature that downtown embraces.” Tom Morrisey also argued in favor of protecting the “unique culture” which exists in DTSA.

Erin B. Naderi, a lawyer from the Palmieri Hennessey & Leifer Firm representing the Coalition against Santa Ana Irresponsible Development, said that “there has not been an adequate analysis of impact of this massive development” on historic buildings such as the Spurgeon Building, constructed in 1913 by the Santa Ana’s founder. Naderi also argued that any Council Member who is known to have “financial interest in the area” or would profit from the project should abstain from voting.

The majority of those who spoke in favor of adopting the plan spoke in favor of economic interests. Ernesto Medrano, the OC representative for the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council, stated that such development would create “high wage construction jobs” for “middle class” residents in a time of economic recession. He also said the project would “revive Santa Ana.” Other businessmen such as John Hanna were also a proponent of “[making] Santa Ana a first class city.”
What these building developers fail to recognize is how this gentrification of DTSA would affect the residents of the area. When high school student and Santa Ana resident Kassie Guevara heard of Mike Harrah’s plan, she said that Harrah “doesn’t know what it is to be a person in this community because he grew up in Whittier” and that “taking a building down like the parking structure is like putting [in] a Whole Foods” which would attract “white people.” She mentions that gentrification makes “prices expensive” in a given area such that “residents… can’t even afford what they are offering.”

Another resident and high school student, Frida Juaregui, states, “I would hate to see another new building being erected that profits someone other than our people. Every year bits of our city, and our most culturally rich places, are being violated and I think that this project just propels that damage.”

Chaeho Homeborn, another resident of Santa Ana, gave a written statement on the matter:

“I think Harrah’s plan to replace the 3rd street public parking garage with a hotel and housing units will have long lasting negative effects on the community. 4th street downtown is already highly gentrified and has pushed multiple small business owners and Santa Ana residents out of the area due to the increase in property rents. 78.2% of DTSA residents are Latine, and not only is Downtown a historical district, it has been a hub of rich culture for those residing there.

Harrah’s construction plan will further drive local business owners out of DTSA. As more modernized, “trendy” restaurants, shops, and apartment complexes open up, local businesses are suffering from rent increase and competition. Fashionable updated housing units draw younger, more wealthy -and sometimes more privileged- people to DTSA, while the majority of native residents are becoming increasingly socioeconomically disenfranchised. The unemployment of DTSA is 13.7% as of June 2020, in contrast with the City of Irvine’s 7.30%.

My mother and I are currently unhoused Santa Ana residents, and knowing the ever-increasing rent prices for housing in Orange County, I think Mike Harrah’s housing proposition will only hurt locals while benefiting the wealthy. We should be uplifting community members, not driving them out of their own homes.”

Upon voting on this matter, Sarmiento abstained from voting due to his “business interests” in the area and the others held a unanimous vote that the approval or rejection of the plan would be decided upon on at the City Council meeting on November 7th after a public hearing regarding the issue, allowing for more people to make their comments regarding the issue.

Next Steps

It is imperative that Mike Harrah’s development plan does not go through, and I encourage Santa Ana residents to attend the November 17th City Council meeting to hold the Council accountable and to voice their opinions on the plan at this meeting or by emailing the City Council to preserve the culture of the area and livelihood of the people who live there. Another action that people can take is boycotting gentrified businesses such as those in 4th Street Market.

As for the General Plan, those who live comfortably in areas of Orange County not directly affected by industrial areas should recognize that to be an environmental activist without having to experience the explicit effects of pollutants is a privilege in itself. It is essential that the City Council develops a more intimate relationship with its residents which need its help most. There are ways for community members to involve themselves in mutual aid work to uplift the most marginalized and disenfranchised members of Santa Ana. This link leads to a form to help create care packages with supplies to stay warm for the winter for unhoused community members in Orange County, many of whom live in Santa Ana. For our community to truly thrive, it must value and protect every member.

We have received a response to this article from the City of Santa Ana, as follows:

The City of Santa Ana responds to our post regarding toxins in our water and soil

By: Paul Eakins, Public Affairs Information Officer, City of Santa Ana, City Manager’s Office

I would like to clarify and correct some of the information in your New Santa Ana article, “Who is protecting the people in Santa Ana from toxins in our water and soil?” that was published on November 13, 2020.

First, the City of Santa Ana prioritizes the health and safety of its residents and as part of that effort, tests and regulates all water delivered to customers. Results of that monitoring for 120 contaminants, including PFAS and lead, are reported each year in the City’s Water Quality Report, which is also referred to as the Consumer Confidence Report or CCR. The full report can be found here.

Drinking water from the City of Santa Ana meets or exceeds all state and federal regulations. By law, we cannot deliver water that does not meet these quality standards.

In regard to PFAS, on page 11 of the CCR we fully disclose that testing of the City of Santa Ana’s Groundwater Well 38 showed detectable results above the Notification Level, but below the Response Level. We voluntarily stopped serving water from Well 38 in September of 2018, right after we received the results. This well has remained out of service since then. The City of Santa Ana is continuing to collaborate with the Orange County Water District (OCWD) on ongoing water monitoring and new treatment methods for PFAS. OCWD manages the groundwater basin where our wells are located.

Please be advised that none of the water supplied to our City’s residents comes directly from the Santa Ana River, as was mentioned in your article. Our water comes from two different sources: groundwater, which makes up 77% of our supply, and imported water purchased from Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), which makes up the remaining 23%. All of the groundwater supplied to our residents comes from our City-owned wells, none of which are operated by the OCWD. However, where OCWD comes in – is in the management and monitoring of the three of Southern California’s greatest water supplies: the Santa Ana River, the Orange County Groundwater Basin and the Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS). The City of Santa Ana draws water from the Orange County Groundwater Basin with our City-owned wells that are drilled up to 1,000 feet into the ground. The soil and the natural bedrock of the Basin additionally filter the water and provide all of us with a high-quality, great-tasting source that is delivered to residents taps. More information can be found at the following web link:

The City of Santa Ana’s Water Resources Division only oversees water quality sampling and does not deal with existing issues of lead in paint (found in older homes) or soil contamination. These matters are handled by the OC Health Care Agency, under the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. Please, visit Orange County’s website to learn more:

However, when it comes to water, page 9 of the 2019 CCR talks about possible presence of lead in water within the piping of some older homes. These homes have been identified and defined as high-risk single-family homes or buildings. Our Division provides comprehensive, free water sampling to all Santa Ana residents who live in these dwellings. Since the inception of the Lead and Copper Rule by the EPA in 1991, the City of Santa Ana’s sampling results have not exceeded any Action Levels (AL) in regard to Lead and Copper in these high-risk single-family homes. The EPA’s Action Level for Lead is 15 parts per billion (ppb) and for Copper it is 1.3 parts per million (ppm). Please refer to the EPA’s website concerning the Lead and Copper Rule:

The City is committed to providing safe, clean and reliable water to homes and businesses. We are proud of the quality of our water, which has won numerous top-place awards for the world’s best tasting and highest quality tap water in the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting competition.
Please do not hesitate to contact our office should you need further information, or visit our water quality web page at

By Editor

The New Santa Ana blog has been covering news, events and politics in Santa Ana since 2009.

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